To anyone really in tune with the blues, Ruf Records is a welcomed and respected name in the industry. Although it was only established in 1994, this German-based label has rapidly grown on both sides of the Atlantic due to an incredible lineup of artists. Ruf consistently releases the best in contemporary blues as proven at the 24th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards. There, Ruf's Ana Popovic and Larry Garner where both amongst this year's award nominees.
The man behind the label, Thomas Ruf, represented his record company in person at this year's Handys in Memphis. On a gorgeous mid-south May afternoon, I met up with Thomas at the Peabody Hotel - long before the duck worshippers took over the lobby.
Over several Starbucks, we tackled many issues including the blues industry as a whole, how Ruf Records began and how the label manages to attract its stellar artists. I found Thomas to be down-to-earth, extremely approachable and very pleasant overall. If you were to encounter him on the street, you would not know he owns a record label with a roster that features top-name blues artists such as: Luther Allison; Bernard Allison; James Solberg; The Nighthawks and Walter Trout. "I was supposed to take over the farm of my father. We have a grape farm and they produce wine. But I have 2 younger brothers and luckily my youngest brother decided to stay at home and work on the farm. Eventually he is going to take it over. It has been in the family for generations. Of course, there was always that expectation from my father that one of the boys was gonna continue."
Many think it was Bruce Iglauer who resurrected Luther Allison's career in the mid-90s but that was actually thanks to Thomas Ruf. "I started out in this business with Luther Allison. I was young. I started out as a promoter. One of the very first concerts I promoted was a Luther Allison gig in the early 80s. He is the one that made me leave the farm and go out to be in the music business. I started to be his promoter then his booking agent for Germany. Then we expanded and a couple years later I became his European agent. I became part of the management team. We couldn't get a record deal for him - not in America, not in Europe. We couldn't really find anybody that we felt would put all his heart and soul into it and really believe in it as much as we did. We had a really good team - there was a great artist - we had the gigs and we promoted all our concerts ourselves. So what we needed was a record label." Then starting to laugh he continues, "We couldn't find a record company at the time so we started one. We didn't know how to do it, we just started a record company. We started selling the CDs at gigs and then set up a distribution network all around Europe. Eventually I started to branch out to America and opened offices in New Jersey. But really I started Ruf Records for Luther Allison."
Luther may have been the inspiration but in his thick German accent, Ruf describes some of the business acumen he used to record Allison and reintroduce him in America. "I got to know Jim Gaines through Joanna Conner (who) I (had) recorded as a management company before I had Ruf Records. Then we had this thinking as we were touring Europe all the time. Luther is a great act on the festivals. He has all his following and reputation in Europe. How can we get Luther Allison back to America? So I got talking to him that I had this idea. I had met an American producer from Memphis and (I thought) we should go back to the American south were Luther originally came from, hook up with some musicians, find songs and record an album down in Memphis. We brought in Jim Gaines, made this record and then we were shopping the masters because at the time I did not have a setup in America. We needed somebody to re-launch Luther Allison in America and luckily we found Bruce (Iglauer) who was interested to pick up the masters. Bruce licensed them for North America and South America and released them successfully over here. Originally those records are Ruf Records. Soul Fixin' Man is really called Bad Love in Europe and it was our first release. Bruce didn't like the title so he changed the title and the sequencing. Then Luther started touring over here more again."
When the label was instituted in North America, Blues Revue magazine featured a big spread about the new record company in one of their issues. Also included was a CD sampler that proudly displayed the motto Where Blues Crosses Over. Thomas reflected back on his goals and the reason for the motto. "The way I think I do things is not exactly that I have a business plan and this is like the goal, this is where we are going. Whatever action you take creates a reaction from the market, from the fans and it influences the next step you take. So you have to plan to go this way - but then things come together and you should not be too stubborn. You also have to be a little bit like a river. You have to go with the flow. Not in the sense that you just do what people expect you to do. When there is a big rock in your way you find your way around the rock and keep going. Our motto is Where Blues Crosses Over because I cannot be an authentic American blues record company. There are the American companies and they are my friends, my colleagues, my competitors. I will have part of my roster a European roster because there is some interesting talent in England and on the European continent that the American labels cannot reach. So its kind of good we don't get into each others way too much."
Ana Popovic is a youthful, guitar-slinging, blues-crooning beauty who is taking the blues world by storm. Like today's highly fabricated vocal pop groups, you may think Ana was a similar creation. In reality, it all happened by chance. "Bernard Allison hooked me up with Ana. She came to Holland as a student within the European community - even though Yugoslavia is not part of the community - but she had a student visa and she was studying at the guitar school in Holland. She had a band and was working locally. Bernard was in town one night and somebody hooked her up to open for him. They got to jam and a couple of days later he was in Germany and he told me about this girl. He gave me her CD and I got to find her and that's how we hooked up. I did not plan and say I'm gonna find me a young, talented European girl. It happened and I jumped on it. To start her in America was also not a nature of force. It happened, we recorded here in Memphis, she did some great interviews and people started to be interested. Next thing we know we get a call from Memphis in May festival inviting her to play at that festival. So it was not like I tried to shuffle this artist into America. If they call for it, I might as well get on it and send her over here."
Another one of your talented artists is Larry Garner. How is he doing? "Larry is doing better in Europe then here in America. I don't know why - maybe there is more guys like him out here? I don't know if there is more competition or is it more just a general thing? People say he is one of contemporary blues most interesting song writer that writes different songs not just about the same old subject and he's a great story teller. They really love him in Europe when he performs and tells all his stories. Because of that we could have not cut out the Larry-isms on the live album."
Having come a long way in a fairly short time, Thomas sheds light on how the blues recording industry could be improved. "Our industry has not been hurting enough yet for everybody wanting/learning to work more together. It gets me every time. I'm a label really set up in Europe. I have a lot of product but my presence is not quite as strong here as in Europe even though I market on both sides. I have an office here too. I've always thought I could make my resources over there available to an American partner and I want an American label to help me market and promote. Why can't we share offices, why can't we share stuff, why can't we have one promotion person? So I talk to all - Alligator, Tone-Cool, M.C., Blind Pig and we are still in this competition."
So far, 2003 is turning out to be the Year of the Blues for Ruf Records. In addition to receiving Handy nominations for Popovic and Garner, the label has released 2 new killer live albums by Bernard Allison and Michael Hill. The remainder of the year looks to be just as promising with new upcoming releases planned by Candye Kane, Ana Popovic, Walter Trout.
For more information about Ruf Records contact: Ruf America, 162 North 8th Street, Kenilworth, NJ 07033 USA Phone: (908) 653-9700 Website: www.rufrecords.de
Tim Holek, Freelance Journalist/Photographer: www.mnsi.net/~thblues
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